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prayers for the stolen review
A young girl grows up in a rural Mexican village amid the threat of abduction.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Tatiana Huezo

Starring: Ana Cristina Ordóñez González, Mayra Membreño, Mayra Batalla, Alejandra Camacho, Memo Villegas

Prayers for the Stolen poster

From 2011's Miss Bala to the recent La Civil, several Mexican movies have examined the impact of that country's notorious drug wars through the prism of such conflicts' effect on women. With Prayers for the Stolen, writer/director Tatiana Huezo continues this trend, though there's no revenge narrative at play here. The women of her film are victims in waiting, with the threats of the cartel lurking off screen throughout like an incoming fog bank.

Prayers for the Stolen review

Like recent dramas 1982 and Belfast, Prayers for the Stolen presents life in what is essentially a war zone through the innocent eyes of a child just attempting to live their life. Played initially as a child by Ana Cristina Ordóñez González and later as a young teen by Marya Membreño, the central figure is Ana. She lives in what should be one of the world's most idyllic regions, a village in the mountains of the state of Guerrero. Stepping outside her door, Ana is treated each morning to the sort of splendid view wealthy people splash out to experience on their summer holidays. Were it not for the threat of abduction by the sex trafficking cartels, it's hard to think of a nicer place for a young girl to live out her childhood.

But that threat is sadly very real. While the young Ana and her friends are largely oblivious, it occupies her mother Rita's (Mayra Batalla) thoughts, and those of the village's other mothers. With the menfolk either working across the border or already dead, the village's women are left to defend their children from the predatory cartels. When mothers see their daughters donning lipstick for the first time, they often react angrily, afraid of losing their child to impending adulthood. Here, this metaphor takes on a very real significance. Seeing Ana wearing an improvised beetroot lipstick, Rita reacts in horror, for she knows that her daughter will soon be seen as a sexual being in the eyes of the cartel.

Prayers for the Stolen review

Desperate to save their daughters, the mothers of the village shave their heads under the pretence of tackling lice. One young girl with a deformed lip, and thus considered safe from the attentions of the cartel, is allowed keep her hair, but later when her lip is healed by surgery, it spells potential tragedy. There's a cruel irony as to how the girls of this community are forced to grow up quickly in terms of being streetwise and taking on adult jobs, while every effort is made to combat the onset of puberty and the attention of men.

That Huezo keeps the threat largely off screen, spoken about in hushed tones by adult women, makes it all the more real. Much of the movie plays like a traditional coming-of-age tale, as young girls don make-up and talk about crushes on teachers, but the narrative makes us terrified of the day when these girls will be viewed as having come of age.

Prayers for the Stolen review

As we've come to expect from recent Mexican cinema, Prayers for the Stolen is beautiful to gaze upon, with Huezo and cinematographer Dariela Ludlow creating dreamlike sequences that wouldn't be out of place in the work of their compatriot Carlos Reygadas. There are images that are strikingly beautiful and some that are chilling. Early on we see children covered in white ash in the aftermath of a quarry detonation, an image later echoed when an unfortunate girl is caught outside during the spraying of a pesticide. Such interconnected images remind us that along with the threat of the cartels, the locals of this area have to contend with the debris of capitalism and progress raining down on their homes. Prayers for the Stolen never feels like it's begging for attention, but it's hard not to view the film as a plea for help from a proud, forgotten people.

Prayers for the Stolen
 is on MUBI UK now.

2022 movie reviews